Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nonprofit journalism tries to make it in Spain

PorCausa is a new species of digital media for Spain: nonprofit journalism.

Its founder and director, Gumersindo Lafuente, is a respected veteran of some of Spain's most important media -- El País, El Mundo, and the late lamented digital pioneer Given the limited resources available, he runs the operation much in the style of a movie director by signing some of the 21 affiliated professionals on a per-project basis. 

gumersindo lafuente burgos iredes
Lafuente emulates Propublica of the U.S. (Photo: James Breiner)
"When we secure financing, we put together a team for the project. When we finish, we dissolve the team," he said in an interview.

Poverty and inequality

PorCausa is an experiment in several senses. It is not a news medium but a foundation that was launched in 2013. It is a novelty in Spain in that it is financed completely by private donations.

It is an experiment in subject matter. Its specialty is two topics, inequality and poverty, especially childhood poverty. The founders (a list, in Spanish) believe that these topics have been neglected by the major media in Spain ("The crisis of childhood poverty", in Spanish). No cats on skateboards.

It is an experiment in contents, specifically in the collection and display of data.
The organization has begun creating a database on childhood poverty with the goal of better understanding and explaining the problem.

Another database they are developing is called Where do the poverty funds go? (in Spanish). It is an enormous undertaking of compiling, organizing, and graphing how various governmental entities -- national, provincial, local, as well as the foundations of political parties -- have been spending money to reduce poverty for the 20 years from 1992 to 2012.

And PorCausa is an experiment in distribution. It does publish its articles on its own website, but also, "We partner with big media, which serve as a loudspeaker for us". To date, their investigations have been republished or have received coverage in El País, La Vanguardia,, The Clinic of Chile, and The Guardian of Great Britain.

"Doing nonprofit journalism in Spain is a total novelty," Lafuente told me on the sidelines of the iRedes Iberoamerican Congress on Social Media in Burgos, Spain, in April. "There aren't any experiments of this kind, and it has not been understood well in Spain. So to manage to put together a minimal organization to be able to do work that has sufficient quality is not a simple matter."

A model of independent journalism that Lafuente aspires to is ProPublica in the U.S., which practices data journalism, shares its work with other media, and operates as a nonprofit. But one significant difference is that ProPublica started with a donation of $30 million and has a newsroom of 45 journalists. PorCausa is still struggling to attract donations.

Independent journalism

PorCausa, unlike most media in Spain, does not accept donations from government entities nor government advertising, which is a donation in disguise (both common practices roundly criticized recently by another prominent editor). Lafuente said refusing this support is critical to maintaining editorial independence and credibility.

A group of 10 "pioneers" has donated at least 3,000 euros ($3,360) each. A crowdfunding campaign raised 5,500 euros ($6,160) from 145 people to develop a documentary on "the impact of the financial crisis on the priorities, life aspirations, work expectations, and future of two adolescents in Spain today."

A different structure

Its financial model is low cost, with in-kind contributions. They try to do as much as possible in the virtual world, with people working from their homes or meeting in cafes. They do have an office space in the center of Madrid that was donated by one of their pioneers. As for salaries, "We try to pay professionals an adequate salary. We don't want anyone to work without being paid."

PorCausa makes public all the data and all the code from its projects. Its policy is financial transparency (in Spanish), although its accounts for the first year of operations had not been audited and closed at the time of this writing.

Lafuente, 57, has been a journalist for his entire career, and this latest venture represents a significant shift. I asked him if he had any advice for young journalists. "A journalist needs to believe that they can influence what happens in society, because if they don't, it will be a difficult career for them. The truth is that you will not get rich if you are doing this job faithfully and ethically. But it is a career that allows you the satisfaction of at least believing, not losing the hope, that your work is necessary for the society that you live in."

Interview with Lafuente, in Spanish.


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